Using COVID to Reset for a Thriving Youth Ministry
Defined as anyone born in the year 1997 or after by the Pew Research Center, Generation Z has the potential to revitalize Christianity in the United States. Gen Z has experienced catastrophic change as the COVID-19 pandemic heightened the uncertainty that already comes in adolescence and transitional life stages. These young people have shifted to virtual learning, moved home from college, lost jobs, struggled to find employment and experienced isolation and lack of connection like most of society.
A group that can hardly remember the world without smartphones, Gen Z is hungry for connection and constancy in a society that is struggling, facing unknowns around every corner. What a marvelous opportunity we have to share with these young people the Jesus who will never change!
Those of us who worked in youth ministry pre-COVID must admit that our programs were not perfect. Things were just okay, but not the best that they could be. The pandemic has presented us with a unique time to hit the reset button and figure out what needs to be done. While change is daunting, we must embrace this opportunity to impact Gen Z, as this generation has the potential to radically move and change the world in the name of Jesus.
I believe four core values are key in cultivating a thriving youth ministry — real, relational, reliant and reproducible. Let’s dive in, to unpack each of these four Rs.
Members of Gen Z have no patience for inauthenticity. They want honesty and a safe place where they can be heard and accepted. An important thing to note is that young people are not looking for information but rather connection which can be shown in your interactions and being the listening ear they need. An environment must be created that fosters healthy conversation and then trains individuals to listen well, whether it’s virtual or in-person. As youth ministers, lead your church and young adults in modeling attentive listening, revealing that through pausing your words, love can be cultivated and authenticity established. Attentive listening is not a natural skill set. For most, we feel like we listen when we choose to stop talking or when there is an absence of talking. However, attentive listening cares more about students being heard, not just hearing. From my experience, I’ve learned Gen Z does not hesitate in asking questions and creating a culture of listening that welcomes conversation is crucial. Doubts or concerns can work as catalysts of faith, so make sure to engage in a loving way where trust is built and all parties can be real and feel heard.
After a year of social distancing and isolation, it’s safe to say we are all in need of connection. Gen Z also wants to know that we care. A successful youth ministry needs to be evaluated on relational metrics, not just success metrics. Creating ties with young people where they are engaged at a heart level is vital. Work to develop lasting friendships and cultivate relationships where people can walk beside young people in their journey of faith. Gen Z is searching for a place to belong and wanting relationships that go deep in the church body, expanding outside of just youth programs. To achieve a thriving youth ministry, we must stop segregating it. We must intertwine the ministries while maintaining the unique space that youth ministries offer young people. Integrating the youth with the entire congregation is important in fostering a connected church body. Look for the small moments and the big ones to celebrate each individual’s steps toward coming to faith. For example, when a young person shares a doubt for the first time, asks an initial question or in some way expresses that everything’s not okay — these are significant relational moves that are underestimated and hardly celebrated.
In a world that is ever-changing, Gen Z needs to taste and see the Lord’s constancy and consistency for themselves. Like James 1:17 says, God “does not change like shifting shadows.” A thriving youth ministry, in any age or context, isn’t about the leaders or the youth ministry itself, but rather is all about Jesus. We must remain centered on Jesus through all things, and invite students to look to and listen to Him. Speak to the youth and communicate that they are loved and cherished by God, he created them in His image and wants a close relationship with them. However, telling about and explaining God is not enough — they must experience God’s love, power, peace and closeness for themselves to fully rely on Him as their rock. Leaving room for hard and uncomfortable conversations is important because space must be facilitated where Gen Z can be in the presence of God and understand the power of connecting with the Holy Spirit. To start, ask the Holy Spirit to come then wait and listen. Ask the questions: Where is the Lord moving? And How do I join him in that? The Holy Spirit is always with us but consistently handing over the mic creates a space where we wait on the Lord together.
Members of Gen Z want to be in the action, they want to move and be a part of the change. They are hungry for purpose and a sense of belonging that can be translated into a meaningful life. We need to empower these young people to live their purpose for God’s Kingdom in their own lives, communities and world. Again, it is about making space for the relational aspect to grow and trust to build. Even though they are young and it can seem risky to hand over the reins, let the youth lead. Give up your authority to reproduce leaders who find a firm footing in their faith and spread the good news of Jesus with the world. Walk through discipleship with them and equip Gen Z to evangelize to all they meet.
It is time to reset our youth ministry programming so that it can thrive and be the source of a great outpour of God’s love, favor and kindness on members of Gen Z because they are starving for it. Revival has always had two key components: a deep reliance on prayer and young people. They are a generation looking for something real and authentic, and I believe that something good is coming for them.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.